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Guide To Choosing a PLB or Personal Locator Beacon For Emergencies

Now there are devices called PLB's or Personal Locator Beacons that will fit in your pocket or backpack and help summon help from almost anywhere you are on the planet by sending a signal to an orbiting satellite and on to a monitoring center that will alert authorities. Personal locator beacons, or personal EPIRB's now have some competition from a device called the SPOT locator. This article examines the advantages and disadvantages of each device.

panama emergency satellite beacon

Photo from my trip to the San Blas Island of Panama. Cell phones don't work here but PLB's do!



Lost, Not The Mini Series.

According to statistics from the National Association for Search and Rescue, some 50,000 search and rescue missions are undertaken each year in the United States alone.  Of these missions  most are undertaken without rescue  party knowing the exact location of the missing person or persons.

This wastes valuable resources and often costs  lives of sould who would have survived had they not been exposed to the elements or received  immediate medical attention.

Cell Phones Won't Work But Personal Locator Beacons Do

There are  thousands of square miles of area in US and Canada where cell phones will not work, not to mention the rest of the world. 

Recently the government (FCC) mandated that analog cellular service will be phased out  by this year. Some phones such as Verizon and Sprint will no longer be capable of  roaming on analog in areas where they once did.

 Many phones just do not work very well off of major highways.   It is most likely that if you hike off the beaten path, you will not have a cell phone signal.  Because of these limitations of  today's cell phones, you may need another means of summoning help.  Also,  if you are  in your vehicle snowed in up along a mountain pass  or infrequently traveled road, your only option may be a device such as a PLB, ( personal emergency locator beacon ) or a device called the SPOT Satellite Messenger.

Types of PLB's and Comparison Of PLB to SPOT Satellite Messenger


EPIRB stands for "emergency position indicating radio beacon".  Some personal locator beacons or PLB devices are EPIRB's, some are not.

Most  EPIRB PLB devices  sold today transmit  on 406 megahertz .  For it to be effective you must register with NOAA, the government agency that monitors them here in the US.

Upon activation by the user, (or immersion in water for marine models) The EPIRB sends a signal to a satellite above the earth with your  unit's specific  code. A monitoring center will identify the owner and attempt to contact the emergency numbers listed and contact the US Coast Guard if near water or local authorities if on land. 

 PLB'S such the McMurdo beacon fit easily in a backpack or on a belt. Since these work by  transmitting to an overhead satellite you must be in an area without dense forest canopy above or rock overhangs.

The SPOT Satellite Messenger PLB

A new PLB  device called  the SPOT Personal Tracker or SPOT Satellite Messenger can be used to send an SOS message which is relayed to SAR agencies,  send a "check In notification", or send a "help" message to family but not SAR authorities.  The unit currently comes in three variations, with full messaging available in the two top end products. The messenger variation of the device allows you to send 40 character messages for about fifty cents a message.

It has to be out in the open and it can take up to 20 minutes to get connected  to the satellite and send a message. It is easy to use, bright safety orange and uses two AA batteries.  The SPOT  Satellite Messenger sells for about $150.00 and costs $99 per year to be a subscriber.

Once activated, SPOT will acquire the user's exact coordinates from the GPS network, and send that location along with a distress message to a GEOS International Emergency Response Center every five minutes until cancelled.

The Emergency Response Center notifies the appropriate emergency responders based on your location and personal information � which may include local police, highway patrol, the Coast Guard, our country�s embassy or consulate, or other emergency response or search and rescue teams � as well as notifying your emergency contact person about the receipt of a distress signal.  The other half of the service is a software package where you set up your SPOT profile, which you can manage from any computer.   With your SPOT ID number you can go to the company's Web site, log in, register your device, and configure your alerts. It can send three different types of messages: check-in messages, help requests, and emergency/911 messages. Each message is sent with information to help find your location, including your latitude and longitude, your device number, nearest town, and how far away it is, and a link to a Google Map with your position located on the map.

I believe that a huge advantage of the SPOT Satellite Messenger is that you can send a message along with a distress call. For example, you could indicate to rescue crews that you will be monitoring a GMRS two way radio channel. Once two way radio contact is obtained (many SAR crews carry FRS/GMRS two way radios), you could describe what gear might be necessary for your rescue, such as high angle gear, medical needs, etc. 

Comparison of the Spot Satellite Messenger to EPIRB PLB Devices

Both the  SPOT Satellite Messenger PLB and the McMurdo Fastfind PLB work well almost every where in the world.  EPIRB type PLB devices do have slightly better world coverage.    The SPOT Satellite Messenger PLB has some dead zones in southern Africa and the high arctic. Personal Locator Beacon EPIRB devices  like the McMurdo cost more but do not require a yearly monitoring fee and do not have the ability to send non emergency messages.  The SPOT uses  2 AA size lithium rechargeable batteries  and has a standby life of 12 months.   Battery life while on transmit is usually longer with a personal EPIRB and personal EPIRB's such as the  Fastfind also transmit on 121.5 MHZ a continuous homing beacon for rescuers to follow. This is a nice feature for areas along the coast where the US Coast Guard patrols, but unfortunately few land based rescuers in national forests will have the required equipment to receive the signal.  Weight is a big issue to hikers. SPOT Personal Locator Beacon weighs only 7.37 ounces and the McMurdo Fastfind  PLB weighs only 9 ounces, barely a noticeable difference. The McMurdo Fastfind PLB is approximately 6 inches long and the SPOT Locator Beacon measures just under 4  and a half inches. 

On the technical level the McMurdo PLB uses geostationary COSPAS-SARSAT satellites and SPOT uses communication satellites.  The McMurdo Fastfind Personal Locator Beacon uses the same technology that the beacons required to be carried commercial ships and airplanes do, which is designed first and foremost to be  an official emergency distress system. with rigid specifications.  While EPIRB distress signals are handled by government and international agencies, SPOT emergency messages are handled through a private company,  the GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston, Texas  and  it's support centers around the world.

EPIRB PLB response times are not available  to the public to my knowledge but  I'm pretty sure they do not need as long to start sending a distress call to satellites as the SPOT Satellite Messenger Locator does.  Many new EPIRB PLB models such as the McMurdo Fastfind do use GPS like  the SPOT  Locator does to identify  the exact location of the distress call, but the difference is that the PLB EPIRB will begin to transmit immediately, giving a rough indication of the users location and then as the internal GPS acquires the exact location it will add this information to the distress call being transmitted. In my opinion, there is some slight trade off  between the two in response time but that is not easily provable. The makers of  the SPOT  Locator claim that it has a 99.5 percent "up time" or connectivity.

I carry the McMurdo Fastfind Personal Locator Beacon but there have been times  that I wished that I had a SPOT to send a quick  one-way family message.

Although it is waterproof and floats the SPOT  Satellite Messenger is not designed to act as a  emergency beacon onboard a boat, nor are personal EPIRB's. Boaters should instead use a  regular sized 406 EPIRB unit that will activate when in contact with water and float.   

Other Kinds Of Beacons

Lately there has been a lot of confusion about a radio homing beacon called "TracMe". This device is not a personal locator beacon per se. It does not alert authorities when you want it to. Moreover, it is designed to allow rescue crews, who already know you are lost, to find you using directional radio gear. Most SAR crews don't have the necessary gear.  I would not recommend the TracMe to any serious outdoor enthusiast since I believe there are much more effective means of signaling your location, such as laser flares, smoke canisters and flares, etc.

Summary.   For the serious hiker both types of personal locator beacons are worthy products. Also if you have any condition such as allergies to bee stings, etc either is a must have if you are going to be in a remote area. For everybody else, they're a great idea  to have and could save your life or that of someone you love.  For a complete inventory of PLB devices including the SPOT Locator, visit "The Back of Beyond Wilderness Electronics and Gear Store".





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